Becoming a Product Manager

Understanding an Exciting and Challenging Role

Businesswoman outlining a new product plan at white board while two coworkers look on
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The role of a product manager is becoming increasingly popular. There is often confusion, however, about just what a product manager does.

Product managers work to understand the needs and challenges of their targeted customers and to translate those insights into ideas for new product development or existing product enhancement. They create the business cases or plans for investment ideas and, when these are approved by management, work closely with engineering or research and development teams to identify requirements and support the process of translating an idea into a new product. 

Once a product has moved through the development phases, the product manager works to help prepare the organization to market, sell, and support the offering. 

A Challenging and Valuable Role

The challenging role of product manager is increasingly sought after by professionals looking to gain broad organizational exposure and management experience. The product manager's responsibilities span the entire organization and extend into the marketplace, typically by focusing on one or more industries and customer groups. 

During a product's life, the product manager is involved in monitoring performance, recommending adjustments to pricing or promotion, and working with customers to identify potential enhancements. Eventually, the product manager plans a replacement product while managing the discontinuation of the older offering. 

Product managers become subject matter experts in their markets and technologies and are often called upon to meet with customers or prospects and speak at industry events or contribute to relevant publications. 

And they do all of this by guiding, engaging with, and leading individuals and functions across their organization, often with no more formal authority than their ability to persuade others to back their ideas.

This is a challenging, demanding job and one that is increasingly pursued by new college and MBA graduates. Serving as a product manager offers an opportunity to gain high visibility in the organization and to cultivate the skills and reputation necessary to advance in future general management roles.

The Evolving Role of Product Manager

The classical role of product manager originated within consumer products companies such as Procter & Gamble or Unilever, where these product or category champions served as CEOs of their offerings. From market research to product development, packaging, promotion and selling, these individuals managed their offerings for growth and profits.

Over time, practically every industry sector has adopted some form of the product manager role. Even service-focused firms rely upon a version of the product manager role to translate customer needs and market insights into new services offerings.

In some markets, the role has been split into two: the product manager and product marketing manager. The product marketing manager focuses more on outbound marketing and coordination, while the product manager tends to focus a majority of their efforts on internal coordination, particularly with the firm’s research and development or engineering teams. In this split-role situation, the two parties work closely together to ensure consistency and coordination across stakeholder groups.

Not a Project Manager

While there is a great deal of cross-group coordination involved in carrying out the role of product manager, the job should not be confused with that of the project manager. The project manager is responsible for coordinating and guiding teams working on temporary and unique initiatives, while the product manager approaches their offerings from a business-wide, managerial perspective.

The project manager has the benefit of well-defined industry standards and certifying practices, while the role of product manager is considerably less formalized at an industry level. There are many firms involved in training product managers, but as of this writing, there is no standardized body of knowledge or certifying body, such as those that exist in the field of project management.

It is common for both individuals—the product manager and the project manager—to work together on a new product development or product enhancement initiative. Nonetheless, the contributions they make are quite distinct.

Skills Required for Success as a Product Manager

Given the broad scope of the role of product manager, there are many skills essential for success. These include:

  • The ability to cultivate a deep understanding of a particular market segment or customer grouping
  • Familiarity with the specific application of the products in customer settings
  • Curiosity to explore and identify customer challenges and translate those challenges into product or service ideas
  • The ability to develop a business plan and investment case for new product development or current product enhancement (a degree in business, especially an MBA, is particularly helpful in this role)
  • Critical thinking skills for assessing customer needs, competitor offerings, and key trends and translating this knowledge into investment plans
  • The ability to guide and lead others informally—without formal report-to authority
  • Outstanding written and spoken communication skills, with an emphasis on persuasion abilities
  • Depending upon the nature of the offering, a deep level of technical expertise (many product managers have technical backgrounds, including engineering degrees)

Career Path Into Product Management

Product managers come from all manner of backgrounds, including:

  • Engineering
  • Research & Development
  • Quality or Operations Management
  • Technical Support
  • Marketing Communications
  • Customer Support
  • Sales Support

Additionally, some firms hire individuals directly from firms in the target market segment. There are many paths into this interesting and important role.

Career Outlook for Product Managers

While product managers can advance their own functions or departments, it is common for experienced product managers to follow career paths into general management or functional management roles. Many move into sales and marketing roles. Their broad base of industry, offering, and operations knowledge makes them highly desirable for a number of roles in an organization. 

A career in product management is rich in challenges and opportunities to learn and to contribute to the success of an organization. The role is part entrepreneurial and part general management, and individuals who prefer to operate with a high degree of responsibility and independence enjoy working in this position a great deal. There are few roles in our modern workplace that rival the opportunity the product manager has to shape the future success of an organization while simultaneously developing a wide range of skills.